MATCH POINT: Azarenka closes out Ostapenko

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Imagine being told about a high-stakes tennis match between a ball-striker and a problem-solver. You’d like to think the problem-solver would win. And you would be right—but only barely.

In a battle of former Grand Slam champions, Victoria Azarenka came up with far more big shots at the critical moments to beat Jelena Ostapenko, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open. The victory put Azarenka in the final of this tournament for the third time, the 32-year-old Belarusian having won here in 2012 and 2016.

Tonight’s match was highly physical. Over the course of two hours and 20 minutes, Azarenka and Ostapenko bludgeoned one another, one drive after another struck hard and deep to all corners of the court. “I had to run like a rabbit,” said Azarenka.

But it was also subtly mental, with several drastic shifts in momentum. Early on, it was all Ostapenko. Instantly showing off the form that earned her the Roland Garros title in 2017, on the opening point of the match, Ostapenko lashed an untouchable down-the-line forehand. In the next game, she broke Azarenka’s serve at 15 and eventually ran out the first set, 6-3. “She came out firing winners,” said Azarenka. By the end of the match, Ostapenko would hit 45 (to 15 for Azarenka).

At that stage of the match, not a single rally had gone longer than nine shots, Azarenka repeatedly hitting far too shallow to rarely be more than a witness. In the second set, Ostapenko swiftly went up 2-0.

Often, particularly during the time she was number one in 2012 and ’13 and winning back-to-back Australian Open titles, Azarenka appeared to dominate matches with her physical presence. But tonight, in the face of Ostapenko’s raw firepower, Azarenka’s longstanding skill at deploying both heart and mind also became increasingly evident. Said Azarenka, “I was just trying to find opportunity, actually create opportunity, for me to get back into the match, to take a little bit more control in the match, really fight for every ball.”

Azarenka is looking to add to her 2012 and 2016 triumphs in the desert.

Azarenka is looking to add to her 2012 and 2016 triumphs in the desert.

There emerged a chain of strength—energy plus footwork fueled improved depth. Now it was Azarenka’s turn to assert herself, as she pinned Ostapenko and began to elicit more errors, most notably off the forehand. From 0-2 down in the second, Azarenka won nine of the next eleven games to go up 3-1 in the third.

Said Ostapenko, “If I was playing maybe a bit smarter, I could win this match in two sets. But then I started to play against myself a little bit. Of course, she was making as many balls as possible, like she was putting more balls in the court, not missing, trying to wait for my mistakes.” This binary view—offense versus defense—reveals a sad gap in Ostapenko’s view of the match, neglecting the nuanced way Azarenka redirected the flow of the match and began to dictate the tempo of a great many rallies.

But then, momentum switched again, Ostapenko breaking Azarenka to even the third at 3-all. From there, any resemblance between tennis and boxing is indeed relevant. Both were hitting big, but with Ostapenko having regained her form, it appeared she might have enough power to overtake Azarenka. Serving at 3-4, 15-all, Azarenka double-faulted, an error triggered by both nerves and Ostapenko’s pace. But on the next two points, Ostapenko misfired a makeable forehand and backhand. Azarenka soon held for 4-all. A similar pattern occurred when Ostapenko served at 5-all, 30-love and then made four straight unforced errors.

Even then, though, serving for the match at 6-5, Azarenka trailed 15-40. One break point was fought off with deep drives from the baseline. The second was saved with a superb 110 mph serve to Ostapenko’s backhand. But then, facing a third break point, came a moment that fully revealed Azarenka’s acumen for problem-solving. Mid-rally, she feathered a backhand down-the-line drop shot and followed it into the net. In charged Ostapenko—and there was Azarenka, reading the crosscourt passing shot perfectly to punch a forehand volley into the open court for a winner. “Can you be more brave than that?” asked a smiling Azarenka. Two points later, Ostapenko lined a forehand into the net.

Azarenka has now reached her first final of 2021, a frustrating year that’s seen her ranking drop from 13 in January to its current spot of 32. “I think my season has been tricky,” she said. “There were parts where I physically couldn't necessarily bring that extra level, extra fight, which was very frustrating. Then there were parts where I felt that I was looking for something to add, and I didn't necessarily know what it was. It was a lot of searching in the season, a lot of kind of stepping into unknown. I feel like right now I'm a bit more settled with a bit more structure, a little bit more discipline, which makes it not necessarily easier but a bit clearer what I need to do.”

It’s rare for a player to reach three finals at the same tournament nearly a decade apart. The first time Azarenka got that far at Indian Wells came during her glory years, barely a month after she’d first become number one in the world. The second happened during a sizzling spring, Azarenka that year winning Indian Wells and Miami—and soon after announcing her pregnancy. The mother angle surfaced repeatedly when Azarenka reached the final of the 2020 US Open and hardly did justice to what she was during that run and has always been, through injuries and many ups and downs. Call Victoria Azarenka simply a competitor, aided tonight by impressive problem-solving skills.